Politics and Design: Yard Signs
Monday, 22 October 2012
 – Michael Warren

vote for me

Those damn yard signs. You've seen them. They all look alike and they are scattered across the landscape like a frickin' pink flamingo farm. Why do they all look the same? Do they work? Can a candidate stand out in a sea of sameness?

Everywhere you look during election cycles there exists a sea of red, white and blue yard signs. It's obvious why they choose that color combination. They want their name and campaign associated with the colors of our nation's flag and patriotism. It's in our culture to see that color combination and associate it with the stars and stripes. We are increasingly a visual society, so appealing to common denominators is important. If the largest part of your demographic understands the color combination of red, white and blue to mean patriotism, then it makes sense to make all of your signs using that convention. This is where design comes into play. A designer uses information about the targeted audience and presents a design that should be the most appealing or persuasive to them.

That said, if everyone is using the same color palette, how is yours going to stand out in the crowd? Your sign is exactly like your opposition's sign from the perspective of three seconds of visibility. Personally, I would advise a candidate to use a background color like orange or green, maybe even a yellow to break out of the mold of sameness that is so pervasive. It's a bold move to go against the grain and not do the expected color combination considering its cultural meaning, but when everyone is doing the same thing, it becomes a background when placed with every other red, white and blue sign. Having a green sign with white lettering on it is going to definitely make the candidate look like the focal point. A designer is not free to choose whatever color comes to mind because color theory comes into play. What do the chosen colors emote? If a designer chooses a green background, then they must realize that color theory suggests that "green is the color of nature. It symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility. Green has strong emotional correspondence with safety. Dark green is also commonly associated with money." (Color Wheel Pro software - http://www.color-wheel-pro.com/color-meaning.html) An evaluation by the designer and client must decide if these are the qualities they want to put forth.

Yes, even fonts are used to convey certain emotions or feelings about a candidate. Times Roman or some other serif typeface is used to convey professionalism, but a sans serif typeface like Helvetica Bold conveys strength and boldness. So depending on the image the politician wants to put forth, a combination of characteristics will be utilized in the sign. But keep in mind that passersby see most of these signs while they are behind the wheel of a vehicle for a brief moment. As a designer, I must make decisions on a design taking not only the client's wishes into consideration, but also, rules of thumb known by professionally educated and trained designers. One of those rules of thumb is that a sans serif font is better used for short messages seen for only a moment like these signs. There is a reason why street and traffic signs use sans serif typefaces. That is not to suggest that all of these signs should use sans serif fonts, but rather to provide information about how we visually process information like these signs.

Okay, if you have the requisite color combination, do you really need to use stars and stripes imagery too? Some think so. Personally, I think it's a bit amateurish. I don't think that it's necessary to completely spell out "American flag" for the audience. So let's ignore those signs and take a brief look at the ones that go a step beyond and have their photos on the signs. A photo? Really? When I go to the ballot, all I will see is your name, not your photo. So why add a photo? Vanity? Maybe. A good designer would caution against it unless there is a very good reason to do so. Is there something about the way you look that needs to be seen by the voting public? Are you going for a high visibility position that requires a lot of face time with the voting public? Do you have kind eyes, great smile or a head of hair that makes others swoon? And yes, it may even be because of your race or ethnicity that you want your face seen. From a design perspective, it's a waste of real estate on the sign to put the candidates face on it. It means space for the candidates' name and office will have to be sacrificed. And it's the name and office that we have to remember when we go to the polls.

Text count
So how many words are too many? Use a variation of the K.I.S.S. principle. Keep It Short Stupid. No more than 7 words should be used to convey the information you want the voter to remember. Try something like "Vote for Michael Warren for World Emperor". See? 7 words tops. No slogans. Just short, quick and memorable. A slogan would be additional information that is fine in an ad, but virtually useless on a yard sign. Remember, they only have a few seconds to see and remember the sign, so this is no place for a campaign speech.

So does design play a role in the effectiveness of these 18" x 24" abominations that invade our landscapes every couple of years? Unquestionably yes, but good design is best used to help the candidate stand out when everyone else is adhering to the status quo.



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